Prabha Khaitan Posts

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fa43991b7 4453 4607 ab48 c9b60e498d5b inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2f7780d9e4 ea1a 4527 a38d c374c19851fc inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fc6eb0cba 6b25 4ce4 8aa8 8bd2f9b25771 inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2f54573804 57c3 4017 aade a11972735d4b inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

On translations in India, 2013. Published in DNA, 20 Dec 2013

On translations in India, 2013. Published in DNA, 20 Dec 2013

DNA, translations(My article on translations in 2013, trends and changes has been published this morning in DNA, 20 Dec 2013. I cannot find the link online but here is a clipping of it sent via email to me.  I am also c&p the text below. )

Cobalt Blue2013 was a positive year for publishing, certainly for translations that were visible. Translations were on the DSC Prize South Asian Literature 2014 shortlist that mainly focuses on general fiction in English, not in a separate category— Anand’s Book of Destruction (Translated from Malayalam by Chetana Sachidanandan) and Benyamin’s Goat Days (Translated from Malayalam by Joseph Koyippalli). Other translations that left an impression upon literary conversations of the year are — Shamsur Rahman’s The Mirror of Beauty ( translated from Urdu by the author); Habib Tanvir’s Memoir ( translated by Mahmood Farooqui); Sunanda Sankar’s A Life Long Ago ( translated from Bengali by Anchita Ghatak) and Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto); Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain (Translated from Hindi by Laura Brueck); Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (translated from Hindi by Jason Grunebaum); Syed Rafiq Husain’s The Mirror of Wonders ( translated from Urdu by Saleem Kidwai); Malarvan’s War Journey: Diary of a Tamil Tiger ( translated by M Malathy); Mohinder Singh Sarna’s Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition ( translated from Punjabi by Navtej Sarna); Prabha Khaitan A Life Apart ( translated from Hindi by Ira Pande) and an anthology of New Urdu Writings: From India & Pakistan ( edited by Rakhshanda Jalil). In fact Penguin India’s best fiction title for the year was The Mirror of Beauty, according to Managing Editor, Sivapriya. She adds, “At Penguin we are developing a focused translations list that spans contemporary texts and modern classics and older classics.”

HarperCollins has an imprint dedicated to translations from Indian literature—Harper Perennial. Minakshi Thakur, Sr. Commissioning Editor says that “The translation market grew marginally in terms of value in 2013, but in terms of numbers it grew considerably. Harper did 10 translations as opposed to the 5 or 6 we were doing every year until 2012, from 2014 we’ll do about 12 titles every year.” Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu “Translations from Indian languages to English, from one Indian language to others and from world languages to Indian languages is definitely on the rise. Personally I have sold more translation rights and published more translations this year than before. Good Indian language authors are in demand like never before.” This assessment is corroborated by Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher, Vani Prakashan who says that “When we decided to do translations some twenty years ago, it was a very new phenomenon. We did translations from English to Hindi, Indian languages to Hindi and international languages to Hindi (without English as a medium).”

Another interesting aspect of translations too has successful publishing collaborations like that of making short fiction by Ayfer Tunc, Turkish writer and editor of Orhan Pamuk, The Aziz Bey Incident and other stories. It has been translated into Tamil and Hindi, but the English edition of this book is not available in India, all though it was released at the London Book Fair 2013. According to Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette, “the books sell well enough without being blockbusters —they were conceived with mid- range sales of 3k-5k like all translations are, and most of the time they tend to deliver that.”

Ira Pande comments on her translation of Prabha Khaitan’s “A Life Apart”

Ira Pande comments on her translation of Prabha Khaitan’s “A Life Apart”

I wrote a comment about the wonderful translation Ira Pande had done of A Life Apart ( http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/05/03/prabha-khaitan-a-life-apart-an-autobiography-translated-from-the-hindi-original-by-ira-pande/ ), ruing the fact it was sans a translator’s note. The very next morning I received the following note from Ira Pande. Thank you!
6 May 2013

On translating Prabha Khaitan
I have always been fascinated by autobiographies because they reveal unknown sides of the person behind the narrative. These are often not visible even to the author of the autobiography, yet they appear to the reader quite clearly. I found this when translating my mother’s writing, even though I thought I knew all about her.

I did not know Prabha Khaitan personally but her story touched something in me. For one, here was a woman who was fearless about revealing the most intimate details of her life and one looked at herself with a dispassionate eye. I tried to get a sense of her when her foster son, Sundeep Bhatoria, asked me to translate her autobiography, but he said he had never been able to get himself to read it and refused to be drawn into a discussion. So her life was a mystery locked in a story she had left behind.

What first struck me was that, despite the honesty and courage, Prabha Khaitan was unable to stand up to a man who appeared petty, petulant and unworthy of her: her lover, Dr Saraf. To me, the original Anya se Ananya, the Hindi version, brought two strange truths together: one was her courage and indomitable will to succeed and defy her Marwari clan and Calcutta society; the other was her disturbing sense of low self-esteem.

I feel there is something that a language bestows by its vocabulary to a narrative. Hindi, by its very nature and political history, is the language of the powerless and the exploited. So it lends itself very easily to self-pity. English, on the other hand, is the language of confidence and power just as Urdu is the language of romantic longing and lyric grace, of tragedy and requiems. Translating from one into another requires not just a strong understanding of the cultural predisposition of these languages but the ability to reconcile the two halves. For me, bringing out the courage and the weakness of Prabha’s persona was the problem to grapple with for both had their own place in her life’s story. I am glad that many readers have seen these two strands in my translation.

Ira Pande
4 May 2013

Prabha Khaitan “A Life Apart: An Autobiography” Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande

Prabha Khaitan “A Life Apart: An Autobiography” Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande


I recently read Prabha Khaitan’s autobiography A Life Apart, translated from Hindi, Anya se Ananya. Prabha Khaitan was from Calcutta, belonged to a prosperous family but chose to be an entrepreneur, a leather exporter. She was also a well-known Hindi writer. According to the information on the internet, her leather business was a multi-crore business. A Life Apart is a memoir that recounts her childhood, the sexual abuse that she suffered as a child (she was advised to hush it up), her experiences in America and the culture shock she experienced but she concentrates predominantly upon her lifelong relationship with Dr Saraf. She was obviously devoted to the man and his family. She remarks “my life was divided into three areas: business, creative writing and my emotional involvement. the first two were on track but my personal life gave me neither peace nor joy.” Dr Saraf’s son had become a part of her business and yet “instead of being praised for my generosity, I had to constantly hear his sarcastic comments about my passionate involvement in business matters.” Dr Saraf would complain “You are becoming like a man. All you can think of is profit and loss.’ Then, as a final barb, he’d say, ‘And why not? After all, this is how a successful business is run.’ Namita Gokhale writes in her introduction says “Pratibha Khaitan’s writing for me, lies precisely in this unwavering, unblinking, truthfulness.”

What is curious is that Prabha Khaitan was obviously a successful independent single woman, at a time when it was unusual and rarely heard of. Yet her memoir reflects the dichotomy in her life. Instead of being a balanced view of her writing, business and her personal life, it is wholly preoccupied with Dr Saraf and ends with his death on 10 Jan 1993. The last para is:

“At the memorial meeting held for him, he was remembered by several prominent personalities for his many qualities. He was called one of Calcutta’s most eminent citizens, a philanthropoist and a brilliant doctor who was survived by his wife and children.
Of a woman called Prabha Khaitan, there was no mention.”

The translation is super. Unfortunately the translator, Ira Pande has not written a word about her engagement with the text. A pity, since it would have been a pleasure to read what Ira Pande had to say about the process. She is always so informative and interesting about translation methodologies, including about the tricky area of transliteration, transcreation and/or translation. For someone like her, who is an accomplished translator ( Diddi and T’Ta Professor ) and fluent in Hindi and English, it is always a delight to hear her discuss translations and literature. She lives it. She breathes it. Hence it was very disappointing not to have a note by her. Making a text available in English for a larger market is I think insufficient, especially when it involves a translated text. The original writer has been heard, but the translator is an equally important part of the process. They too must be given space in the printed word.

3 May 2013

Prabha Khaitan A Life Apart: An Autobiography Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande. Zubaan, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 280. Rs. 395